So an obvious major downside of being an expat 24+ hours away from your home city/state is the fact that you end up missing a lot of activities, holidays, vacations, etc. that you may have taken for granted when you were back in the U.S. One key vacation that I knew I was going to miss was my yearly ski trip with my friends from California (Kerry, Kayma, Amy, Kris, and others). For the past 14 years I've been on at least one ski trip each season to either Whistler, Mammoth or Utah...and each time we've had a blast. So...not wanted the streak to end, I started researching places around India where I might be able to get some slope-time. Turns out there are several places in India that are starting to make a name for themselves from a skiing perspective. The Himalayas are obviously tall mountains...but in certain areas they also receive great snow, very few visitors and have decent lifts/gondolas up the mountain. Which means there's some good powder to be found, cheap skiing and no lift lines. The downside...well, you have to give up some of the perks you might be used to finding in western mountain resorts like a decent apres ski, rental options and a ski village atmosphere. Not to mention the ever present avalanche danger and land mines...but I digress.
Anyway...for my ski adventure, I decided to visit a ski mountain in Gulmarg in the northern most state of India, the state of "Jammu and Kashmir". That's the actual state name..."Jammu and
Kashmir"? That's sort of like having the state of "Texas and
Oklahoma". Some of you may have heard about Kashmir before as back in the late 90's as it was probably the most dangerous place to be in India given it's close proximity to Pakistan and the area of land that to this day both India and Pakistan don't really agree on who owns it...aka the "Line of Control" area. You can read more about the Line of Control by clicking here
...there's a good map
as well showing where Srinagar is (my point of entry).
My experience driving around this area tells me it's probably the second most fortified boundary between two countries...second only to North and South Korea.
Up early on a Saturday morning to catch my Jet Airways flight to Delhi...with a short (50 minute) connection in Delhi to catch a connecting flight to Srinagar. I got to the Hyderabad airport early and when I went to my frisking and bag screening, the x-ray operator noticed something in my hiking boots she didn't like so of course we had to unpack the entire bag to get to them. Turns out I forgot that I have left my walkie-talkies in the toes of my hiking boots and she said you can't carry walkie talkies on the plane....I would have to check my luggage. As I knew my connection time was short, I refused to check my luggage so I called my driver and asked him to hold my walkie talkies for me (nice perk of having a personal car/driver). Back in the airport my flight was of course delayed by one hour...but as they said my flight out of Delhi to Srinagar was also delayed, they told me not to worry. I had arranged a car and driver at Srinagar to pick me up and take me for the 2+ hour drive due east (towards Pakistan) to the mountain in Gulmarg, so I had my assistant call the driver and tell him I was running late. When we landed in Delhi, I got off the flight and was told to wait on tarmac next to the airplane as we were taking the same plane to Srinagar.
I didn't pay too much attention and did as I was told...little did I know I was getting a plane that wasn't going directly to Srinagar...but of course no one with Jet Airways chose to tell me that. Anyway...we made a brief touch down in Jammu before heading finally to Srinagar....but now I'm 2+ hours late. When you fly into India from a foreign destination, they will sometimes tell you as you're taxing back to the terminal that many airports in India don't allow you to use cameras on airport property. We'll...Srinagar is most definitely one of those airports. The same airport that is used to land commercial airlines is also the military airbase with fortified bunkers, MIG fighters and soldiers with AK47's all over the place.
And given that this airport is the closest airfield to the Pakistan border...it's very important militarily to India....thus, no photos please...or we'll take your camera and smash it before we crack your skull with our AK (maybe I exaggerate a bit). Walking to the arrivals building, I see a desk called foreign traveler registration and didn't think anything of it so I kept walking out to find my driver (oops). I found my driver (Basheer) and we hopped into his 4x4 which lacked a heater. Oh...did I mention it's just below freezing in Srinagar and we're going to Gulmarg where it's currently well below freezing and snowing? So I was a tad cold after living in humid, hot, arid southern India for the past year. The drive through Srinagar is pretty uneventful...except for the amount of military around every corner. At one point we were stopped near the city limits and the driver was asked for his name and car number...they could have cared less about me. Even when we got outside the city limits, it was amazing to see that every kilometer was an Indian soldier on the side of the road guarding his little piece of land with an AK47. I'm not exaggerating about this...ever kilometer there was a soldier standing with a gun...I tried to take some pics of them but my driver told me to stop or I might get shot.
I could tell we were nearing the mountain as the roads were covered in snow and it was snowing harder.
We pull over off in this small town and the driver tells me we have to wait as the Chief Minister of Jammu and Kashmir is in Gulmarg preparing to come down the mountain road. As the mountain road is basically a single lane road, they have to clear it for him so no one tries to "off" him. Basheer tells me "30 minutes sir...no problem". He had to put snow chains on anyway and I wanted to stretch my legs and get a cup of chai so I wasn't too worried. Two hours later...I started to get worried. Now it's dark, I'm really cold and we haven't made any progress up the mountain. Finally Basheer comes running to the car and says we're going...as there were a number of vehicles and mountain guests stuck in this
small town trying to get up the mountain to Gulmarg, another couple jumps into my car for the ride up. Turns out the guy in the couple is the owner of the hotel I'm staying at (Pine Palace Heritage). He got his MBA in New York and he and his wife now live at the hotel...tough life. We chat up the winding road to the hotel and around 9PM we finally reach the hotel...sort of.
The roads to the hotel are "snowed out" and we end up walking the last 300 yards/meters over the snow to the front door. As I arrive into the hotel up with the owner, the front desk people practically thrown themselves at me to get me warm, feed me chai and show me to my room. The room was basic to say the least...but it was warm and the shower was hot. The Pine Palace is one of two locations in Gulmarg with a proper bar (Gulmarg is technically a dry city) so I stopped off in the "ski lounge" where I met two crazy guys from Norway who's names both reminded me of the sounds whales make when mating...I think their names where something like Helugay and Argha.
Also in our little group was an American girl who lives in Delhi (Rebbecca) and another American couple from Bangalore. We proceeded to drink, tell stories and watch Helugay pass out drunk after one-to-many "super strong" beers. All the beers had the words "super strong" on the label...didn't taste super strong though. As I was walking back to my room I met yet another American, but this guy actually lives in Gulmarg all season as part of an avalanche training team. Brian is from Colorado and is helping to train the local snow patrol on how to prevent avalanches. The gondola at Gulmarg was built in two stages. Stage 1 is open 90% of the time and goes to mid-mountain. Stage 2
is only open under certain conditions and goes to the top at over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). Unfortunately given the amount of snowfall we had that night, there was no way Stage 2 would be open the next day...too much of an avalanche danger. Brian said he had ordered some explosives from the army to go up and try to trigger an avalanche...but he said he wasn't sure when the explosives would arrive. Despite the fact that I arrived over 4 hours late in t Gulmarg...I made it safe and sound and was looking forward to some good skiing tomorrow.
Sunday morning I woke up early and had a great breakfast at the hotel and then inquired about where one might go in Gulmarg to rent skis, boots and poles. The manager said I needed to go see Yaseem...who works a short 10 minute walk away at the "Kashmire Alpine" ski shop
. The manager also gave me an avalanche beacon to wear in case I get trapped...that made me feel safe. :-o I started to get directions to Yaseem's when the manager insisted he send one of his employees to help me find it...thank god he did that. 25 minutes and about 4 small hills later I reached Kashmire Alpine...exhausted. The ski shop was basically a second-hand store with very few options, but fortunately Yaseem hooked me up with some fairly
decent powder ski's and some comfortable boots...total price...500 rupees/day...cheap! To get to the gondola it required hiking back the same way I just came...some of it could ski. On the way down near the gondola, one of my ski's popped off and would fit back on my boot...crap. Fortunately I took Yaseem's mobile phone number down and he was able to meet me halfway so I didn't have to hike all the way back. Ski fixed...I finally got to the gondola base to do some skiing. For an unlimited lift ticket to mid station, it was 500 rupees...so, so cheap. As Stage 2 wasn't open, I would only be able to ski the bottom half of the mountain...which was probably a good thing as this was my first run of the season. The gondola is actually pretty nice...just as good as gondolas I've used in the West.
Once you got off at mid station you realized that this isn't like any other ski mountain.
There are no marked trails, no groomed trails, no other lifts, no ski patrol...you're on a mountain that is complete back country territory. I was probably one of three people on the mountain who did not have shovels and avalanche probes in their backpack....oops. Nor did I know how to use my avalanche beacon...oops again. Anyway, I picked a trail down that had some fresh tracks and started down...the snow was fairly heavy, waist deep and easy to get bogged down if you didn't stay on top or in someone else's trails.
As the snow was fairly fresh...there were hardly any trails on the mountain...people would kill for this kind of snow in the U.S. but here there was an entire mountain full of it. Getting down was hard work and I had to stop every few hundred yards to catch my breath and rest my legs. I ended up staying mainly on others tracks for the first run which was probably harder
work than making my own tracks. The first day I probably went up and down the gondola five times...which was a full day. The amount of terrain to ski here is amazing...but I was definitely dog-tired spending so much time on back country terrain. Back to the hotel for a nap, then to the ski lounge with a few guys from the U.K. where we drank a few beers, had some dinner before turning.
Monday was my last day of skiing and the top of the mountain still wasn't open. The Indian army still hadn't showed up with the explosives Brian needed to help trigger avalanches. I was disappointed, but given the entire top of the mountain is double black diamond territory and my legs were still burning from yesterday I wasn't too sad. Plus, there was still plenty of mountain on the bottom half I had yet to ski...so off I went. I actually got a little adventurous and followed some groups who had hired local ski guides and explored the outer edges of the skiable area...lot's of fresh tracks and hard (but good) skiing.
So glad I had a guide to follow otherwise it's pretty easy to get lost up there as not all paths lead back down to the Gondola base. Including timeout to have lunch at the mid mount restaurant, the full day took another five runs...good times. I hiked back to the lodge, had a beer, then hiked back to Yaseems to return my rental gear. On the way back to the hotel I took a detour to check out more of Gulmarg...an hour later I somehow found my way home. That evening in the hotel "Ski Lounge" there was an free lecture given by an Australian group that sponsors ski trips to Gulmarg...tonight's topic was how to effectively use your
avalanche beacon to find someone after they're swallowed up by an avalanche. Our US based instructor showed a video and then scared the hell out of us saying that chances are if we were hit by an avalanche on this mountain, we'd be dead on impact because the snow is so heavy. If we were lucky enough to survive, we'd be dead if our friends couldn't find us in 15 minutes. After the presentation a group of us commandeered the DVD player and TV and watched the Simpsons Movie while drinking beer and eating good Kashmir food. Tuesday morning is check out day.... up early for breakfast, packing, saying my goodbyes
and heading back to Srinagar to catch my flight. On the way back I think we passed the exact same soldier every kilometer standing there with their guns...guarding nothing.
Entry into Srinagar airport was definitely different the the entry into any other airport in India I've been to. Here's what we went through:
1) Before entering airport property, we were stopped, I got out of the truck with my luggage and proceeded to a screening shack where I was frisked and my luggage scanned. My driver in the meantime was frisked and our vehicle was searched.
2) Upon entering the airport terminal, my bags were x-rayed again, marked as "ok", frisked a second time and boarding pass checked.
3) At the airline check-in, my passport and ticket were checked, bags checked and I was approached by someone in street clothes asking me if I was a foreigner. I said why do you want to know and he said he needed some information from me like passport info, visa info, etc....I said something like "go away". This guy followed me up to a cafe where he said he needed this data...I asked for his ID and not only did he work for the airport, he was also in the Indian Intelligence Agency...oops. He said I should have filled out a similar piece of paper upon my arrival into Srinagar (remember that "foreigner registration booth" I said I walked past at the airport when I arrived)...oops.
4) When they called my flight number, I was allowed to enter the departure gate area where I was frisked again, carry-on bag x-rayed and was told to proceed outside and identify my checked bag (otherwise it wouldn't go on the plane).
5) I endured a 2+ hour delay waiting for our flight....great...missed my connection in Delhi for sure.
6) Finally it's boarding time...walked out onto the tarmac...lined up with the rest of my fellow passengers for yet another frisking (#4 if you're keeping count), boarding pass stamped for a third time and finally got on the flight.
They're pretty serious about security at this airport, huh? Anyway...needless to say I missed my connection flight in Delhi and had to take a Deccan air flight which arrived into Hyderabad 7 hours later than my originally scheduled flight....ugh.
Despite all the flight screw-ups, Gulmarg was great, Kashmir is completely safe...and I'll definitely be going again next season!
NOTE! I'VE IMBEDDED SOME PICS IN THE STORY BELOW...BUT TO SEE ALL PICS, CLICK ON THE LINK ABOVE THAT SAYS "SHOW ALL THUMBNAILS" ABOVE THIS TEXT BOX.